There was much activity on social media last week celebrating the 30th anniversary of the historical election of four Black MP’s, Dianne Abbott, Paul Boeteng, Bernie Grant, and Keith Vaz. In the aftermath of a racist campaign against Diane Abbott (see link) it was a fitting tribute to the contribution both to Dianne Abbot and the Black Sections campaign. However, there was hardly any mention on social media that last week of the record number of ethnic minority MP’s who will now enter Parliament after the 2017 election. We will now have 42 non white MP’s, yet our communities seem much less excited about this achievement in 2017, and most strangely seem to want to hide their ethnicity.
The 42 MP’s are not evenly split across the three main parties, as 32 will sit on the Labour benches out of a total of 261 Labour MPs (12%); while 19 are Conservatives, out of 315 (6%). The Liberal Democrats will have one ethnic minority MP out of a total of 12 MPs (8%). The large number of BME MP’s in the Labour benches is no doubt partly from the legacy of the Black sections campaign within the labour party, which started in the 1980’s.
Black politics changed in the 1980’s, and the post 1981 black politics was infected by two issues, firstly the events around the 1981 riots across Britain, and secondly the changing economic profile of the Black community under Thatcherism, with a few doing well, and the majority becoming even more marginalised. In this climate, Black Sections, was established to further minority representation within the Labour Party. Anyone who know the history of the Labour party will know that the labour movement over its long history it had always prioritised the demands of its white working class community, ignoring the needs of its colonial subjects during empire, and its Black community post empire. This issue which remains with us today, and we see it still see it in Gordon Brown’s simple statement, ‘British jobs for British workers’.
However, since the 1960’s the Labour party has relied upon the large Black communities in urban areas for votes, and over time, people from Black communities stood in local council elections, and even as MP’s, though during the 1970’s these were often in unelectable seats. Some in the Black communities were so disillusioned that in the 1983 and the 1987 elections, the Confederation of Indian Organisations, the West Indian Standing committee, and the Federation of Bangladeshi organisations put forward their own candidates, independent of the Labour party.
However, by the 1980’s a young generation took up the issue of representation and started to campaign within the Labour party itself. Among its founding members were Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng, Marc Wadsworth and Sharon Atkin. They had some success and In 1983, a resolution setting out a framework for the National Executive Committee met with warm words, and within a few year the Black sections had 35 branches, including 4 in London. On the back of its success over 200 candidates being elected across the country in the 86 council elections, and in the 87 national elections it put forward 12 candidates, of which 4 were selected. We should remember that the candidates were elected with huge swings, for example Keith Vas won with a 9% swing, as compared for a average of 2% across the east Midlands in the 87 elections. One reason for this success was the huge mobilisations which went on the ground as well as parliament. They had launched a Black Peoples Manifesto and this document information prospective Black candidates about specific demands from the grassroots community.
However, the mood within the Labour party had changed. The Labour leadership, Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley decided to stamp out Black Sections. They saw all left elements within in the party as a hindrance to success, and along with Militant the Black sections were simply dismissed as part of the left problem within the party. One reason for this, and which still haunts us in the treatment of Diane Abbott today, was how the rapid right wing press use racism to ridicule them. As one commentator noted at the time, “The rabid, right-wing section of the tabloid news media joined them in an unholy alliance to ridicule the Black Section-supporting council leaders, Merle Amory, Bernie Grant and Linda Bellos, as ‘loony left.’”
The most bitter battle occurred in 1989 in Vauxhall during the selection of Martha Osamor, a community activists from North London. Martha Osamor was vetoed from becoming the official candidate as Labour’s leader, Neil Kinnock, became obsessed with resisting the rising left-wing rank and file members. It was a contest that many claim Martha could have easily won, given the chance. Her daughter Kate remembers, “all I remember now was how the media treated my mum: they made her into this ‘loony left’ character.” Martha received 8 party nominations, Kate Hoey received one, instead Kate Hoey was chosen for the candidacy and has been sitting as MP for Vauxhall ever since. The Black sections didn’t die down and by 1990, the Labour Party finally changed its constitution to embrace the Black Socialist Society.
We shouldn’t assume everyone from the black community supported Black Sections, there then, and now, much debate about whether confronting the politics of the Labour party was simply a diversion from confronting the real politics affecting communities, and whether this was simply a battle for aspiring middle class Blacks, and how should you really tackle the issues of making political parties accountable to Black communities.
Whatever one thinks about these issues, there is no doubt Black Sections had some impact, since Labour do now have twice as many non white MP’s, than any other party. Does this mean anything for us?
Well last year, Dawn Butler told the BBC how she was mistaken as a clean by another MP. The Labour MP for Brent Central said it had been one of “so many incidents” of racism she had encountered while in Parliament. Institutional racism is deep within parliament, and the Labour party.
Just remember, Kate Hoey is now the darling of UKIP supporters, and openly campaigns for white workers rights, and Marc Wadsworth one of the father of Black sections is still suspended from the party. If we want the 42 non white MP’s to be accountable to us, then now more than ever we need a Black People’s Manifesto.
The history of the Black Sections is available from Marc Wadsworth on marcwads (at) btinternet (dot) com,
The full list of ethnic minority MPs is:
Tulip Siddiq, Rupa Huq, Dawn Butler, Diane Abbott, David Lammy, Mark Hendrick, Vireda Sharma, Rushnara Ali, Shabana Mahmood, Lisa Nandy, Chuka Ummuna, Chi Onwurah, Yasmin Qureshi, Keith Vaz, Khalid Mahmood, Seema Malhotra, Kate Osamor, Naz Shah, Valerie Vaz, Clive Lewis, Imran Hussain, Thangnam Debbonaire, Rosena Allin-Khan, Eleanor Smith, Preet Gill, Tan Dhesi, Afzal Khan, Mohammad Yasin, Marsha de Cordova, Fiona Onasanya, Faisal Rashid, Bambos Charalambos.
Adam Afriye, Shailesh Vara, Nadim Zahawi, Sam Gyimah, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Kwasi Kwarteng, Helen Grant, Rehman Chisti, Ranil Jayawardena, Nusrat Ghani, Suella Fernandes, Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, Alan Mak, Alok Sharma, Seema Kennedy, Kemi Badenoch, Bim Alofami.